Big Sky Conference

Former baseball star Mitch Gueller thrives in return to football at ISU

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Former minor league pitcher Mitch Gueller has become Idaho State’s home run threat.

Last season during rivalry week, Gueller put it all together.

Up to that point, the 2016 season had been a year of transition for the Idaho State receiver. When Weber State rolled into Holt Arena in Pocatello November 19, Gueller had 26 catches for 322 yards to show for the season. There were flashes of his big play ability, like a five-reception, 100-yard game against Montana two weeks prior, but he was just getting the hang of being ISU’s deep threat.

Idaho State wide receiver Mitch Gueller/by Brooks Nuanez

The last game of the Bengal’s season foreshadowed much of what 2017 would eventually look like. Despite the 34-28 loss to Weber State in ISU’s season finale, Gueller caught 10 passes from his brother Tanner for 187 yards and his third touchdown of the season.

“Over the summer, and even into the season a little bit, I wouldn’t say I got the stride of getting used to the game until a little into the season,” Mitch Gueller said. “It definitely took a good six months to totally get used to it.”

This season, the deep ball has been the brothers’ bread and butter, and no quarterback-receiver duo in the Big Sky Conference has done it better than the Guellers.

In eight games this year, the Guellers have connected for 879 yards and scored eight touchdowns. Fifteen of their 36 connections have been for 30 yards or more, including touchdowns on 30-, 54-, 70-, 75- and 97-yards .

“We don’t do a lot of things to get the ball to Mitch specifically,” Idaho State coach Rob Phenicie said during a November 1 conference call. “Most of the time it’s a matter of chance by where the ball goes, or what hash we’re on, or the situation. I bet (Tanner) does tend to lean on Mitch a little bit.”

Idaho State enters this season’s rivalry game with little more to celebrate than a year ago. The team doubled its wins from last season, from 2 to 4, but will go without a playoff appearance for the 34th year in a row. It will renew a lopsided rivalry against the top-ranked team in the Big Sky and one of the stingiest defenses.

The Bengals will look to the home run combo for help in taking their first win against the Wildcats in Ogden since 1984. The Big Sky’s No. 1 defense’s one kryptonite seems to be medium-to-deep passes. Weber State ranks eighth in yards allowed per catch (13.4).

“I think subliminally, a quarterback always has confidence in that guy and he can always go to him,” Phenicie said. “You like to spread the ball around evenly to make defenses play honest, but when you have a guy who’s going to be there and catch the ball, I’d imagine he’d tend to go to that.”

A player usually knows when he’s on the roster bubble. And Mitch Gueller knew.

In May 2016, he was a 22-year-old pitcher and a former first-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Phillies whose career had stalled in the low-A ranks of the minor leagues. He was cut from the Lakewood (New Jersey) BlueClaws in his fourth season, and his baseball career ended.

Idaho State quarterback Tanner Gueller/by Jason Bacaj

“My whole dream was the major leagues,” Gueller said. It was a tough pill to swallow.

“The writing was kind of on the wall…You want to see a guy that’s progressing and moving up levels, and I wasn’t doing that.”

Meanwhile, Tanner was poised to start at quarterback as a sophomore at Idaho State. When he heard Mitch was cut, he saw an opportunity to reunite with his brother on the football field.

Mitch was a quarterback at W.F. West High School in Chehalis, Washington, a basketball player and, of course, star pitcher. Right away, Tanner brought up the possibility of Mitch joining the Bengals as a non-traditional student to former head coach Mike Kramer, but this time as a pass-catcher.  

“I remember telling him and he just started laughing,” Tanner said. “He knew Mitch and knew that he was a good athlete. ‘Is there a chance he could come play here?’ He just laughed and said ‘Of course.’”

Mitch was ready to move on, but the thought of giving up on baseball was bittersweet. On the 11-hour drive from Lakewood to Chehalis, Mitch decided to join his brother at Idaho State. That fall he caught passes from Tanner. By November the former pitcher became the Bengals’ home run specialist.

“Growing up we talked about it all the time. As children that was a dream. ‘How cool would it be to play sports together as long as we could? If we could get on the field together again, how cool that would be?,’” Tanner said.

Idaho State wide receiver Mitch Gueller/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s a lot of fun being on the same field. It beats listening to his starts on the radio. It’s a lot better than that I’ll tell you that much.”

The transition to football wasn’t easy. And if the adage that pitchers aren’t athletes is true, then Mitch had a lot catching up to do to take on one of the most athletic positions in the game.

“I wasn’t running a whole lot as a pitcher. It also just wasn’t as physical. In baseball, you pitch once every five days,” Mitch said. “I’m not so sure you get used to just how physical this game is.”

It didn’t take long for Mitch to knock off the rust. He joined the ISU receiving corps as a true freshman. Now, one year removed from baseball and a day-trip’s distance from his former high school, he remade himself into one of the Big Sky Conference’s top playmakers.

“I wanted to get my education and what better way to do that than to play sports and do it with your brother?” Mitch said.

The benefits of having a former pro pitcher at wideout, especially one with the ability to score on any given play, would make any play-caller drool. The Bengals have already sampled the hidden arm once this season. Down 39-28 to Montana in the fourth quarter, Phenicie sent the offense out on fourth down and four. Mitch threw to Tanner for eight yards, but an offensive penalty pushed them back to a fourth-and-long and the Bengals punted.

Though his first-career pass boosted his efficiency rating over 160, he hasn’t gotten another call yet.

“It wasn’t much of a deep throw. Coach Phen told me the other day it was a pretty bad throw, so I’m not doing that anymore I guess,” Mitch said.

Idaho State wide receiver Mitch Gueller/by Brooks Nuanez

These days Mitch lives out his baseball dream vicariously through Kyle Benjals, the brother’s created journeyman slugger in the video game MLB 17 The Show. And although his pitching years are well behind him, the memories of his failed baseball career taught him not to take any opportunity for granted.

“I would say that between being an 18-to-19-year-old kid, there’s a lot of growing up you have to do both mentally and physically,” Mitch said. “A lot of it is how I approach the game. Baseball is one of those things where you could get cut and you kind of lose your dream. I take that as a learning experience and try to enjoy every minute of it because you never know when your last minute on the field is.”

Nick Puckett is a freelance journalist and senior at the University of Montana School of Journalism. The Castle Rock, Colorado native has been a contributor to Skyline Sports since August of 2017. 

About Nick Puckett

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